November/December 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 6
Reading America’s Most Famous Speech
No presidential speech has been as widely analyzed, memorized, or canonized as Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It has inspired more words to amplify and celebrate its mere 10 sentences than any oration since the Sermon on the Mount: articles, recitals, chapters, set pieces in films and plays, and, at last count, seven major books, most notably, until now, Garry Wills’s Pulitzer Prize– winning
Yet Gabor Boritt’s new
Here, Boritt argues (Wills notwith-standing), is not the speech “that remade America” at all. Here is the America that remade the speech, recasting it from the poetic pendant to the gray legalese of the Emancipation Proclamation into a chest-thumping manifesto for nationalism and interventionism. Lincoln’s masterpiece was re-invented to justify America’s expanding aspirations around the world while ignoring the shrinking rights of African-Americans at home—the people to whom the original speech had promised “a new birth of freedom.”
If the speech could justify saving democracy at home with force of arms, it could later be used to send those arms abroad. Did Lincoln so intend? No, Boritt insists; he was merely, albeit brilliantly, trying to make sense of the catastrophic domestic struggle for the Union, majority rule, and emancipation; to sustain support for the terrible war; and perhaps, too, to launch his own candidacy for re-election.
Yet Boritt’s striking chapter on shifting American memory shrewdly shows how the address’s reputation rose as national commitment to equal rights declined. In the era of Jim Crow it was far more convenient to recall Lincoln as an orator of national might, not civil rights. Boritt demands that we hear the speech as it was first heard on November 19, 1863, on the site of the largest, fiercest, bloodiest battle in the history of the hemisphere.
Along the way he gives us an unforgettably vivid picture of the village where so many soldiers fought and died—the sight, the sound, and the smell of it as it explodes in monumental fighting, rots away in the torrid heat once the armies withdraw, then returns to life in half-mournful, half-raucous celebration to welcome the President that fall. In a brilliantly researched, beautifully crafted, and ultimately deeply moving work, Boritt never lets his readers lose sight of the tragedy that inspired such bravery and sacrifice from common soldiers, and such eloquence from their Commander in Chief.
The Budapest-born Boritt, who lived through the 1956 revolution in Hungary and now makes his home on the Gettysburg battlefield, brings a viewpoint inspirited by both experiences: surviving upheaval and living within the moving lens of historical memory. Perhaps only a foreign-born American could reduce the Gettysburg Address to its simplest truth: “This is who we are.”
We can only hope. In the midst of gruesome conflict, as Boritt reminds us, Lincoln’s voice “carried no touch of stridency or self-righteousness.” The President’s notions of rebirth went “even deeper than the Christian message, if that was possible,” touching “the primeval longing for a new birth that humankind has yearned for and celebrated with every spring since time immemorial.” Here was “the rationalism of the Enlightenment combined with Protestant conscience.” Here was a plea, in the midst of a wrenching war, to achieve a just peace.
More than 40 years ago the historian David C. Mearns wrote an exasperated Gettysburg essay entitled “Unknown at This Address.” Mearns would be delighted to know that however long it has taken, the addressee has finally been found—and, even better, understood.
— Harold Holzer is co-chairman of the U.S. Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.